Deadline set for new plans to tackle industry's energy costs
Crucial proposals aimed at tackling high energy costs for Northern Ireland manufacturers will be produced in a little over two months in a bid to help the struggling sector.
Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell set the challenging March 1 deadline for his newly-established Energy and Manufacturing Advisory Group.
He set up the body amid pressure by industry and business leaders to take direct action following the loss of 862 jobs in Ballymena with the planned closure of the Michelin plant.
The manufacturing sector was also hit after Caterpillar NI revealed it was cutting 100 jobs and Schrader Electronics said it was letting 42 temporary staff go.
Aircraft manufacturer Bombardier also warned that it was facing a "serious financial crisis" because of lower-than-expected orders.
The firm is currently negotiating new pay and wages conditions with its 5,000 employees.
However, while the group's "short, sharp" report may produce some quick hits, its chair said the Executive would need to "step up to the mark" to help keep Northern Ireland manufacturing competitive.
David Dobbin, chief executive of United Dairy Farmers, will chair the eight-strong group.
"The minister is reacting to an industry call to do something about energy costs," he said.
"It's on his watch and he called us to do our best to respond to that call.
"We are working on faith that if we do this report, the Government, not just the minister, and other departments will react and take action."
Mr Dobbin also told how the outcome of the group's recommendations was important to his own business because energy costs at two of the firm's sites were higher than labour.
He said that the March 1 deadline was a challenging one and cautioned that some of the recommendations may take some time to implement.
Mr Dobbin said: "Government has given us a chance to have an input and we are going to use it . We are not to waste it or squander it.
"We will make as big an ask as we can make, but there are limits to what the State can and cannot do."
However, the minister stressed that everything possible must be done to find a solution to combat energy costs.
He said: "I'm asking them to tell me what I need to hear. I have an open mind and I will not be restricting their recommendations in any way.
"I can assure people that what they tell me will refresh Northern Ireland's economic strategy."
The group members are Mark Nodder of Wrightbus, Declan Billington from animal food producer Thompsons, Stephen Kelly from Manufacturing NI, Carla Tully from power company AES, Invest NI board member Mark Sweeney, Jackie Pollock from Unite and Bill McGinnis, advisor on employment and skills.
Robin McCormick from SONI and Nicholas Tarrant from NIE Networks will be observers.